White Spaces Network

The White Spaces network taps into a high profile area of international political and media debate. This is one of the fastest growing areas of international research and discussion across public policy, governance, management and organisational studies: the challenges and prospects of increasingly ethnically diverse societies. It promotes international and interdisciplinary collaboration across arts, humanities and social sciences.

What is Whiteness and White Studies?

White studies turns the core logic of traditional race and ethnicity studies on its head by concerning itself with the accumulation of power in multicultural societies. It is interested in how this accumulation of power has come to be associated with certain social, cultural and material practices valued in Western Liberal Democracies. These new theoretical understandings of whiteness and white identities and ethnicities have been developed and debated in the US, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and more recently Europe, including the UK.

They have profoundly changed conceptualisations of racialisation and gendering, that is the processes by which we are produced as raced and gendered beings.

How can Barack Obama be elected to president of the USA at the same time as the leader of the UK British National Party appears on national television to make his case that the White anglo population ‘are aborigines here’ in the UK?

The election of a man of mixed Kenyan and American heritage to president of the USA at the same time as there is increasing evidence of the growth of ethnic violence and hate crime across the world is one of the paradoxes and contradictions that work in contemporary multi-ethnic societies. These contradictions come in many shapes and sizes such as the increasing dependence on immigrant and migrant workers (often from minority ethnic groups) in western societies alongside growing agitation for restrictions on immigration and asylum; or the growth of equality and diversity policies to promote and celebrate ethnic and religious and cultural diversity alongside political statements on the desire to move into a post-race society.

The network uses this innovative white studies approach to work out answers to the pressing issues in multicultural societies. So the key term whiteness does not refer to skin colour, but to a way of understanding cultural and political power in contemporary multicultural societies. These were some of the questions considered in the Network’s inaugural conference  in July 2009.

Social Policy and Change: State Initiatives to Displace Whiteness

This theme brings together work across politics, public policy, social policy and governance and cultural and historical sociology to consider the continuities and shifts in contemporary racialised governmentalities. When we talk about racialised governmentalities we are thinking about the logics, tools, techniques and mechanisms of contemporary governance across a wide variety of state formations. We are interested in how formal and informal state practices support the enactment of whiteness as a normative ideal, even as their policies ostensibly aim to combat racisms.

Work in progress explores the relationship of the policy turn to equality diversity and human rights to the reproduction of whiteness as an organisational ideal. It also includes a special issue of the journal Social Politics White Spaces? Racialising Organisational Femininities and Masculinities

This special issue provides a unique opportunity to draw on and extend insights from the international and interdisciplinary field of critical whiteness studies for feminist social politics. It will explore the processes of racialisation in institutions and organisations, specifically the operation of ‘whiteness’ and its relationship to gendering. Debates in this field have moved on from essentialist, binary understandings of white identity to consider whiteness as a social, political and ethical location caught up in and reproducing local, national and geopolitical relations.

Debates in the journal Social Politics have been important to the recognition that states maintain ‘racialized gender order’ (Boris, 1995; 2005). Recent critique focuses on the reproduction of white privilege through welfare and public policy paternalisms (Neubeck and Cazenave, 2001; Williams, 1989; 1995) and maternalisms (Brush, 2001; Crenshaw; 1989; Lambert and Bullock, 2005). Thus, there is a growing examination of the material effects of whiteness as an oppressive social relation. Nevertheless, there remains relatively little, if any explicit interrogation, as to the ‘nature’ of whiteness. What tends to happen is that popular concepts such as ‘white backlash’ (Neubeck and Cazenave, 2001; Hewitt, 2005) reduce whiteness to ‘anti-blackness’. But there is little consideration of the multiple and varied everyday experiences of whiteness. Nor of the ways in which whiteness infuses state making and organisational practice.

International and interdisciplinary theoretical understandings of whiteness and white identities and ethnicities which have been developed and debated in white studies have profoundly changed conceptualisations of racialisation and gendering, that is the processes by which we are produced as raced and gendered beings.  For example these debates trouble the distinctions between ‘race’, racism and anti-racisms (Brah, 2005) paving the way for more fluid understandings of the productiveness of power, its uneven and distributed nature. Such approaches open up the possibilities for more ‘positive’ and unpredictable racialisations (Nayak, 2005). They also help us to think about the contradictions and continuities in contemporary racialised governmentalities.

This is not to suggest white studies as a panacea. This refocusing of the analytic gaze on power has not been unproblematic. White studies is sometimes characterised as promoting white narcissism, (Ahmed, 2004; hooks, 1992; Bonnett 1996) which recenters whiteness. A further critique has been the way that privileging whiteness is at odds with a world increasingly viewed in terms of nationality, nationalisms, religious and political values (Bonnett, 2008). The most fruitful analyses make contemporary geopolitics visible in how whiteness is played out in identities, institutions and everyday lives. It is for this reason that we focus on a range of organisational process and practices relevant to contemporary social politics (health and social care, education, policing, community sports) because it is these contexts which constitute the nexus between micro practice, broader discursive structures and even geopolitical change.

One of the key contributions of the special issue is to bring together papers from international and interdisciplinary perspectives. Contributions discuss Hong Kong, Switzerland, France, Canada and the UK and emanate from communication, cultural and gender studies, sociology, social policy, management and organisational studies. The papers will draw theoretical and empirical analysis to interrogate different aspects of racialisation, gendering and whiteness to open up our understandings of what constitutes institutions, politics and the social.  In particular, we seek to examine the ways in which these interdisciplinary perspectives on whiteness can enrich understandings of gendered and racialised power and marginality in social politics.

In sum then this special issue, by bringing the fields of feminist social politics, organizational sociology, public policy and governance and white studies into conversation, begins the work of connecting material and experiential analyses together to consider how social politics constitutes a white space.

Further plans include a new collaboration between Shona Hunter and Jieyu Liu based in UoL White Rose East Asia Centre Producing White China, bringing together Hunter’s work on white masculinist governmentalities in welfare and public policy and Li’s research on gender and sexualities in the corporate work place.

WUN White Spaces Postgraduate Network

The postgraduate arm of the White Spaces network is semi-autonomous to the broader White Spaces network.  It focuses on postgraduate development in the area of critical whiteness studies and aims to create a graduate community that understands the specific pressures, constraints, and opportunities facing postgraduates working in the field.  The network also aims to build links with practitioners and non-academics in order to make an impact beyond the confines of the academy. 

The postgraduate network held its inaugural conference ‘New Territories in Critical Whiteness Studies Postgraduate Conference’ over 18-20 August at the University of Leeds, with financial support from the Social Policy Association Small Grants Fund, the Economic History Society, the Leeds Humanities Research Institute, the Worldwide Universities Network, and the University of Leeds’ School of History and School of Sociology and Social Policy.  


Central to the network is its promotion of international collaboration between members.  The postgraduate network currently has more than twenty people from across the globe, including the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada.

Through the use of innovative technologies to share information, the network aims to advance this evolving field into new territories and develop research partnerships and other opportunities for its members, by providing an opportunity to share information, experience, successes and even the difficulties that we face, in order to assist each other in developing our research careers in the field of critical whiteness studies. 

Since the conference, the network has been active in developing the potential of the postgraduate arm.  Two important development strands are:


  • The blog offers an interactive and thought-provoking platform to bring issues of critical whiteness studies to a wider audience, both academic and non-academic. 
  • The blog enables people to post thought-pieces, reviews, responses to current events, and interactive comments. 
  • The blog provides an outlet for ideas, as well as a collaborative enterprise that can respond to issues and debates in the field in a dynamic and thought-provoking way, as well as sharing important information such as future events, articles, links to other networks, and TV/film/book/article releases.

Get Involved

The network provides a dynamic, challenging, and critical space in which to debate issues and open up dialogue within the field of critical whiteness studies and beyond.  We are interested in exploring the diversity of perspectives, both ideologically and geographically, and value the personal engagement that people from different approaches and backgrounds can bring to researching whiteness and white ethnicities. The network aims to build on this engagement and to reflect the debates, challenges, and developments in critical whiteness studies, and with the collaborative efforts of current and future participants, it proposes to be an exciting and ongoing enterprise

Anyone interested in becoming involved in the PGR arm of the network should contact Say Burgin or Maddy Abbas at the University Of Leeds.

Harnessing the power of performance, poetry and art

Because many of the network’s member countries have different histories of migration, colonisation and ethnic settlement which inform present day multicultural contexts one of our core themes is to consider what the notion of the settler means in these different national spaces.

  • What does it mean to be settled somewhere, and what it means to be or to feel unsettled and out of place?
  • How do we understand national belongings?

Working out answers to these questions leads the network into new domains of art and cultural representation.

One of the keynote speakers at our at our July conference Nirmal Puwar talked about the project Noise of the Past which was a sensory encounter involing poetry, historical documents, music, stone, coloth and visual art which has produced the film Unravelling and a musical performance at Coventry Cathederal. This work brought together the filmaker Kuildip Powar, the composer Francis Silkstone and the poet Sawarn Singh to create a filmic and musical dialogue around the ways in which war frames current multicultural societies.

For us in the network, the questions are around how this frames the paradoxes of whiteness.

  • Dr Shona Hunter, University of Leeds
  • Associate Professor Catriona Elder, University of Sydney
  • Professor Pauline Leonard, University of Southampton
  • Associate Professor Melissa Steyn, University of Cape Town

Understanding Cultures